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16 Mass. Elected Officials Challenge State Agency On East Boston Substation

The site of the proposed East Boston electrical substation on Condor Street near Chelsea Creek. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The site of the proposed East Boston electrical substation on Condor Street near Chelsea Creek. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Multiple members of the Massachusetts federal delegation, along with several state and local elected officials, sent a letter on Monday to Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides, challenging the state's recent decision to move forward with plans to build a controversial electrical substation in East Boston.

The letter, directed at the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), asked the board to re-evaluate whether the electrical substation on the Chelsea Creek waterfront is actually needed to meet the area’s power demands, and also to postpone an upcoming public hearing so that more members of the public can participate.

“The siting of any new significant energy project requires the full and informed input of the surrounding public, [especially] as this planned industrial infrastructure is in an already disproportionately overburdened Environmental Justice community,” the 16 signatories wrote. “Participation in the approval process must not be in name only.”

Officials signing the letter include U.S. Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren; U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Joseph P. Kennedy, III and Katherine Clark; State Senators Joseph A. Boncore, Sal N. DiDomenico and Jamie B. Eldridge; State Reps. Adrian C. Madaro, Daniel J. Ryan, Liz Miranda and Michelle DuBois; as well as Boston City Councilors Lydia Edwards, Michelle Wu, Julia Mejia and Annissa Essaibi-George.

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The EFSB is scheduled to meet on the evenings of December 16 and 17 to discuss and vote on final approval for the East Eagle Substation Project. This meeting has already been postponed once because of the pandemic, and the letter asks that it be moved again.

“At a time when the number of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts is sharply rising and so many community residents must focus on maintaining their own and others’ physical and economic wellbeing, it is unfair to ask them to engage — virtually — on a highly technical project,” the signatories write, noting that East Boston has one of the highest infection rates in the state and has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic’s “stark economic fallout.”

A spokesperson for Theoharides, who chairs the EFSB, wrote in an email that the siting board values public participation and encourages all residents to watch the hearing on Zoom. Real-time Spanish-language translation will be provided for those who need it, he added.

“It really does put some pressure on the Energy Facilities Siting Board if every elected official that represents the area — from the federal level down to the local city councilors, and all the legislators in between — are seeing this idea of holding a hearing during a pandemic in a neighborhood that’s one of the hardest hit as inherently unfair,” says John Walkey of GreenRoots, the Chelsea-based nonprofit leading the fight against the substation. “It’s just good to know that we have their support.”

A rendering of the proposed substation (Courtesy of Eversource)
A rendering of the proposed substation (Courtesy of Eversource)

Electrical substations convert high-voltage electricity to a lower voltage, and are a critical part of our energy system. There are approximately 900 substations in New England connected to high voltage transmission lines like the one the EFSB is considering for East Boston.

When the utility Eversource first proposed the project in 2014, it said the substation was necessary to meet the area’s growing electricity needs. Those opposing the project were skeptical, and have been fighting to get the EFSB to re-evaluate the issue ever since. (The Union of Concerned Scientists has also questioned the need for the project.)

Eversource originally cited development projects along the waterfront as part of its argument that the substation was needed, but six years later, those have been built and there’s no indication that there are power distribution problems, Walkey says.

If the station is actually needed, he adds, then Eversource should be required to share its “proprietary” data showing this is the case — and if the main customer appears to be Logan Airport, he thinks the state should consider asking MassPort to build the substation on its property.

Eversource spokesman Reid Lamberty says the company has shared the data showing demand increases, but adds that “due to proprietary customer-specific information, we can’t discuss information regarding the airport or any customer for that matter.”

GreenRoots has repeatedly tried to get the EFSB to reexamine this issue, but so far the board hasn’t been willing to do so. Walkey says he hopes this letter from so many elected officials will change their mind.

Marcos Luna, a professor in the Geography and Sustainability Department of Salem State University and a GreenRoots board member, created maps to demonstrate what could happen to the property under different sea level rise and storm surge scenarios in the future. (Courtesy of Marcos Luna)
Marcos Luna, a professor in the Geography and Sustainability Department of Salem State University and a GreenRoots board member, created maps to demonstrate what could happen to the property under different sea level rise and storm surge scenarios in the future. (Courtesy of Marcos Luna)

As noted in Monday’s letter, the area where Eversource plans to build the substation is already “an area of industry overuse.” It sits near millions of gallons of jet fuel and heating oil, and down the street from giant salt piles. Those who live nearby have high rates of asthma, and the area suffers high levels of air pollution from Logan Airport and nearby highways.

The proposed substation site is also highly susceptible to flooding. One street corner near the station tends to flood during even modest rainstorms, and those living nearby worry that climate change will lead to frequent heavy downpours and sea-level rise that will exacerbate the problem. “Electricity and water don’t mix,” is a common refrain among those opposing the project.

“If approved, the Eversource electrical substation would have decades-long effects on an extremely vulnerable and disproportionately impacted population,” the letter states. “Residents in and around this congested area must be given the opportunity for meaningful involvement, which the currently scheduled meetings do not provide.”

Related:

Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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